In the past few months, the country has witnessed a murder and several incidents of sexual assault within the premises of private schools. Following the murder of Pradyuman Thakur, a standard second student of the Ryan International School, Gurugram, state governments and educational boards issued several guidelines to ensure the safety of students in these schools. Safety audits were also made mandatory for schools across the country.
Three months after Thakur's murder, however, the urge to create safer schools seems to be fizzling out. The spotlight was back on school safety again recently after a 4-year-old girl was allegedly sexually assaulted in Kolkata's GD Birla Centre for Education. While the incident led to sustained protests for several days online and offline, a majority of the country's schools are unprepared to prevent tragedies such as these.
Parul Sahaya, who had started a change.org petition seeking mandatory safety audits in schools, tells HuffPost India over phone that it is worrying that despite the government issuing guidelines, schools are mostly dragging their feet on the issue of implementation.
HOW MANY WAKE-UP CALLS DO SCHOOLS NEED?
"I had written to the PMO and to Maneka Gandhi. I also met Manish Sisodia and was told that the government was working on steps to make schools safer," Sahaya says.
The mother of a three-year-old girl who works in a software firm in Gurgaon adds that she can't help worrying. "With so many incidents happening, including the child's murder, I thought someone should raise their voice."
Sahaya's petition at the moment has more than 2 lakh signatures. "It got a good response. The voice reached so many people who had the same concerns as me."
Sahaya says she isn't aware whether the rules she wanted implemented -- including holding safety audits -- have been implemented in schools or not.
"In India, schools don't give you the authority to inquire about these things," Sahaya says and adds, "Most parents want to be involved, but we don't get access."
After Thakur's murder, the CBSE and ICSE boards had mandated that safety audits needed to be carried out on an urgent basis and would have to be provided to the boards or put up on the websites of the schools.
The AAP government in Delhi had also put out a 117-point checklist for schools, one of which demanded that schools set up 'safety committees' to actively monitor security issues.
WHO'S MONITORING SCHOOL SAFETY?
Garry Singh, the president of security services consulting company IIRIS and a specialist in school and infrastructure safety, says that the number of inquiries regarding safety audits in schools his company received, increased by 400% in 2016-2017. However, actual business increased only by 1.5%. Which means, while schools showed interest, they didn't follow the same up with action, at least in IIRIS' experience.
Singh, in fact, can confirm that the Pradyuman murder case led to a definite spike in conversations about schools being audited for safety. However, many schools left it at that, without bothering to follow up with the actual process of auditing. He adds that barring a few, most schools he knows of, aren't equipped to prevent an incident like the assault on Pradyuman that took place inside the school toilet.
He adds, after the audits are conducted, some schools are transparent about the results and involve parents in the discussions. "There is a second category of schools that do try to implement new safety measures, but do it step by step, and slowly, because of monetary constraints. There are also schools that take the reports and never bother to follow up," he says.
In his experience, the schools which are vigilant about safety have embraced measures like installing GPRS devices on school vehicles and installing CCTV cameras across the campus. They are also open to the idea of exploring newer security measures. However, most schools, he says, "have left it to up to god".
In some cases schools themselves audit their own safety standards following arbitrary guidelines or rope in agencies which provide security guards to do their audits. This doesn't cost the schools much, but also end up providing compromised results obtained through unprofessional methods.
The schools are perhaps not to be blamed alone. Successive governments at the Centre have not managed to come up with a universal, holistic rulebook that schools must follow to make sure students aren't victims of sexual crimes and physical assault. While there are some guidelines on school structure (like how a building should be constructed for safety), Singh says, "The government has not made specific guidelines for school safety standard."
He adds, "We follow Australian and American guidelines as a benchmark for audits."
Singh's company looks at the security of schools on a scale of how prepared they are to prevent eventualities like we witnessed in the past few months.
While holding audits, Singh's company looks for the following "One, there has to be enough surveillance so that any perpetrator is aware that he or she is being watched and can't get away with a crime. Two, there has to be penalties and other mechanisms for even small lapses in place to deter such incidents."
He says school security solutions come from a mixture of "electronics, locking mechanisms and guard patrolling."
However, Singh doesn't mention if the idea of 'safety' involves sensitization of the staff and children to be aware and alert about the possibility of an attack.
DELHI GOVERNMENT'S MEASURES
Chairperson of the Delhi State Commission for Protection of Child Rights, Ramesh Negi, tells HuffPost India that the Delhi government has formed a committee to monitor school safety. Apart from representatives of the government, the committee includes one member from the child rights commission as well. The committee has representatives from the Delhi home department, transport department, Delhi directorate of education, private school principals, government school principals and all the municipal corporations of Delhi.
According to sources, a web portal is being set up by the Delhi government and and all schools will require to register with it. They will be given login IDs and will have to upload the safety audit reports on this website.
Negi says, "As mandated by the government, all schools will submit their safety audit reports on this web. They will have to adhere to the guidelines issued by the authorities." However, he adds that these audit reports are in the offing and he hasn't received any yet.
The child rights commission official mentions that they often conduct 'surprise checks' every Monday, but there are invested with limited power when it comes to pulling schools up for negligence. "We have powers of a civil court to summon but not to adjudicate. The directorate of education, in case of lapses, can take action under the Right To Education Act or the Delhi Education Act."
If the directorate finds criminal negligence on part of the school, they can invoke the Juvenile Justice Act to prosecute the school.
A member of the commission, Anurag Kundu, who was part of the committee that helped the Delhi government set up the 117-point guidelines for schools, tells HuffPost India, "The guidelines were notified roughly 25 days ago. Schools were given a month to implement them. After the month is over audits will be carried out."
Kundu says that usually the regulator/administrator of primary schools are municipal corporations and for schools above primary sections it is the Delhi Directorate of Education. The schools will be audited by their respective administrators.
"The checklist has been designed to encapsulate the minimum standards of school safety to emphasize zero tolerance against any violation in this regard. Practical implementation and monitoring has been kept in mind," a senior official of the Directorate of Education (DoE) had said in November.
It mandated that everything from monthly safety walks to identify loopholes in security to deploying only female members in toilets of primary schools. It mandated that all toilet visits by students upto Class 2 would have to be with a woman caretaker.
It said schools would have to keep a record of every person entering and exiting the school, secure boundary walls with grills and have CCTV surveillance.
Reports had also said that schools were told that visits to laboratories, sports room, auditorium, library, computer room, gymnasium and assembly halls would have to be made with relevant teachers.
While the Gurgaon DC, the Delhi government, the ICSE and CBSE had all promised immediate audits in schools, no reports have yet been presented to the public. Kundu adds that even in the case of the website they are setting up, they're not sure if the results of the safety audits submitted by schools will be available to the public.
INDIA AT LARGE
On the other hand, following the Pradyuman incident, the CBSE board had also issued a directive asking schools affiliated with it to carry out safety audits. However, in a new circular, they have introduced additional points and haven't mentioned a deadline for schools to complete and furnish the results of these audits. Instead, it says schools will be given "ample time" to implement these rules.
The ICSE had, in a circular, asked schools to submit audits by September 16. It is not clear how many schools have actually adhered to these directives. Considering that the sexual assaults in Kolkata took place in schools affiliated to the ICSE board and long after the apparent deadline for safety audits, it is not hard to see how stringent the board has been in making schools care about child safety.
While private schools may have the resources at hand to implement the rules that have been mandated by the Delhi government, government schools -- that hardly have toilets, teachers or even desk for the students to sit on -- carrying out such measures and submitting reports to a web portal seems very ambitious.
Ironically enough, a majority of schools in India seem to be very bad at learning important lessons in safety.